Thursday, May 2, 2019

album review: 'neotheater' by ajr

...well, second time's the charm, right?

But before we get into this, let me set the scene: it's the middle of July in 2017, I'm churning my way through my schedule, and I figure on a lark I'd check out this new project from a band for which I had no expectations. Yeah, their first album had been an inflamed cyst upon the bowels of 'indie' pop rock, but reportedly they had "left" their major label to deliver this themselves - a facade easy enough to blow through when you consider the connections they had and the copyright claims they leveled and any access to Billboard and RIAA documentation, but I respect the persistence to hold up the illusion and call me a liar directly for pointing it out. But I'm getting ahead of the story, because at that point, while I had zero expectations the album would be good, it couldn't be that bad, right?

And you know the story: I took in the album and despite being quite ill at the time - and speak of the devil right now - I got in front of the camera and gave it the thorough flensing it deserved as an incoherent fusion of genres and malformed ideas that was still screamingly convinced of its own transcendent power. To this day it is the worst project I've ever "reviewed" on my channel - and I say that more because there's a part of me still faintly sickened by the pastel-shaded cumshot wrought upon the tears of an evangelical youth group taking their first hits of a bad joint laced with PCP. And while one can recoil in absolute revulsion from the sound on display, what I took the strongest umbrage with was how it was a complete thematic failure: sure, the lyrics might be overstuffed and drooling over with dunderheaded pop culture references that fostered a lingering suspicion the trio was more brand deal than band, but at its core it was an attempt to complete similar arcs to what twenty one pilots did with Blurryface or Jon Bellion did with The Human Condition in examining the arc of their success, taking the novel approach to avoid owning any real drama by making the mother of bad faith decisions to wallow in over-privileged non-action. That's what made the project feel so hideously wrong to me, clearly deluded into believing there's dramatic impact through their framing and delivery, and then delivering something the antithesis of all of it - it'd be worthy of Dadaist horror if there was any trace of subversive thrill instead glassy-eyed, autotuned scatting.

That was 2017. I posted the review, it went about as viral for me as any album review is wont to do, to the point where Angel Olsen's embittered 'they made a meme out of my legacy, darling' from Alex Cameron's 'Stranger's Kiss' echoed whenever I thought about it. That the revolting thing about the acts you lambast in the era of internet content creation, because in addition to their somehow real fanbase, they have picked up waves of infamy thanks mostly to yours truly. And thus in the only way they'd understand when they see this review - a pop culture reference - I thought of the Joker near the end of The Dark Knight and the line, 'I think you and I are destined to do this forever'. And so we have Neotheater - reportedly a bit better and a bit darker from the trio, and with no obvious featuring credits to jeopardize that illusion they aren't managed or distributed through the major label system. And considering you all want it, what did we get?

So if you're all here to watch me do an overblown evisceration on this thing... look, that's for special occasions, and AJR's Neotheater, despite its lofty swells that want to feel cribbed from a mid-50s live-action Disney musical, it's really not that special. It's certainly not the special sort of excruciating that made The Click such a uniquely atrocious work - it's still absolutely terrible, let's not dance around that, but for the first time I can hear points where the group has at least the potential to make songs that would be tolerable, or an artistic instinct that isn't the equivalent of a spring-loaded meat tenderizer to the gonads. Or to put it another way... I'm not even sure this is the worst album I've heard this year, and for AJR, that's an improvement.

But to qualify that low, low bar, we need to qualify why this album is still as abysmal as you'd expect, so let's run through the gauntlet. First off, this is a trio that seems to understand groove as something Bruce Campbell might say than any well-structured organic percussion or bassline, and even then I'm not sure they'd get that reference because AJR remain one of the most sanitized acts utterly devoid of texture and flavour making indie pop. And yet they're still content to nakedly rip off Jon Bellion-circa-2016's genre fusion and production style - overweight programmed percussion with no body, pitch-shifted vocals, an odd obsession with whitewashed 50s Americana rooted in Disney, a flailing and embarrassing attempt to co-opt some hip-hop patterns - while missing any sense of subtlety or gravitas. And what's so pitiful at this point is how they so desperately want to make their songs sound big and epic and important in order to match the emotionality, crank the stakes up to eleven, selling it all with complete sincerity... and yet none of it sticks because frontman Jack Met has the bemused non-presence of someone hopelessly out of his depth who is trying to play for a cheap pop rather than add any deeper flavors of dimensionality or poise. He's got much of the same problem as Lil Dicky has in terms of his instantly dislikable anti-charisma: a complete inability to project confidence or dignity in writing or delivery - especially that ear-scrapping falsetto - along with a refusal to truly confront what might be the ugly roots of any emotions driving the material, half because a lack of visceral investment in the delivery, half because the writing defaults to the shallowest possible turns of phrase. That's one reason why it's so easy consider AJR a parody or joke - just with no punchline - or for me why it's so easy to see them as a corporate calculation gone awry, especially when the band actively tries to diminish the stakes of their own material, one of the biggest issue of The Click

Because let me give them the slightest amount of credit: reflections upon childhood and adolescence and a fear of growing up is worthwhile material to write a song about, there can be gravitas and weight in that, even if it really just serves as subtext behind the larger text of AJR's terror at actually releasing new art. Once again, just like on The Click AJR's muse is their own creative process... which can be a real problem when you have a band whose privilege and their own seemingly willful blindness to it stands as the most glaring unintentional subtext of the whole affair. And yet when you pair that myopia with big attempts to 'make statements' - statements that feel devoid of substance or critical self-awareness - it rapidly makes them seem cloying and insufferable. Take 'Birthday Party', a song that on the surface would seem to be a child making a bunch of naive statements about how everything is going to be okay, echoed on the hook with the statements that he's got his and life will be a cinch and that's just how it is; now the intended joke is that this is bullshit and that there is a darker side to all of this and that naivete is going to be shattered... but on the bridge we get a sample from Eraserhead that reflects the same point and we never get a moment where that illusion is shattered or challenged or even a note of aspirational hope is provided that things will change, so the entire track winds up feeling detached and smarmy. And that detachment informs songs like '100 Bad Days', where sure, bad experiences make for good stories, but when the punchline is that it would make them interesting at parties... well, first off it depends how those stories are told to make them truly interesting, but if that's the worst to which your hundred bad days add up, that kind of destroys the tension! And it gets actively worse on 'Break My Face', where not only could I swear a certain Cave Johnson took a similar conceit and made it a million times more potent in Portal 2, but also has this patronizing pettiness directed at people who might run their mouth or roll their eyes at AJR that reinforces that same myopia. And you'd think a song like 'Karma' would get interesting or start to punch a hole in that insularity - it's all going well now and yet he's still not happy in his mock therapy session, and while I could say it's all because of the hollow self-absorption isn't getting to the core of his real issues, the album unintentionally provides a matching explanation, first in the song where he again tries to avoid facing reality by asking to stay in therapy forever, and then a song later on 'Beats', we get a song that might as well serve as an ad for Beats by Dre as he considers - and becomes through the art - just another corporate shill. 

And again, the band isn't really commenting on it or even criticizing it; it's just their experience, and given how actively passive they are, it only highlights how nakedly cynical and weightless the whole enterprise is. And while this is probably the point of the review where I could probably branch into a lengthy video essay surrounding AJR as the unintentional poster child of white, over-privileged late capitalism, I really don't have to - because the band themselves highlight their disposability on 'The Entertainment's Here', where the songs become alarms to be worn out, food quenches boredom, and you can't dare contemplate something bigger when there's more mindless flash and consumption to do. Hell, the hook of the song is literally about turning off your brain when the entertainment arrives! And that highlights the sharpest dichotomy of this album, again: for as much as it wants to spur soaring drama to challenge the human spirit in its choice of tones and sound, the content reframes and guts it of that power by making it all self-reinforcing and utterly unwilling to challenge anything about himself or anything else, bastardized by language dumbing it down to its lowest common denominator. That's one big reason why the common bond found on 'Wow, I'm Not Crazy' feels so empty, because outside of the WebMD-diagnosed hypochondria, there's nothing on this album that feels genuinely "crazy" that would earn the relief. It's why 'Dear Winter', while trying for sweetness for a future child where he hasn't even met the mother, winds up reinforcing its own emptiness - put this opposite, say, 'Dear Theodosia' from Hamilton and AJR can't come close to making this work. And it's why the finale tries to highlight an arc where he gave them hell - he didn't - and is now overwhelmed by an outpouring of support from fans... again, there's no arc here! There's nothing that was lost or challenged or any serious revelations found, just a reinforcement of their status quo - a bad year was implied a few times but brushed aside by pablum or outright contradicted on 'Karma' to reinforce product straining to mean so much more than it actually does, with the only emotive note coming through as a response from fans who bought into the shallow flair. And if you don't buy into it - mostly on my part thanks to bad mixing where the grooves are constantly underweight, the percussion has more texture than body, the horns sound thin, the arranged elements are garish and overplayed, and let's not forget every shrill squeal and howl from the teased vocals in the monogenre pile-up - this project becomes excruciating.

But I did say there were improvements on this project somewhere, in between songs like 'Birthday Party' with the garbled Donald Duck voice on the prechorus, or the horrible layering of the trumpet off the pianos and vocals on 'Break My Face', or the bastardization of a vaudeville style with the garish horns on 'The Entertainment's Here', or how the genuinely promising gallop off the cello of 'Karma' is handicapped by grainy and gummy squawks mutilated samples, or the gutless contorted glitch of 'Beats', or the drop on 'Wow, I'm Not Crazy' that's trying to do a Chainsmokers thing and failing! And that last one is exasperating because outside of the larger context of the album and even with the stupid verses - it is not relevant to anything you took your goddamn vitamins - the melody of the hook isn't bad here. Same with - and I can't believe I'm about to say this - 'Don't Throw Out My Legos': the multi-part hook has some structure, the chopping of the sample is a pale imitation of Jon Bellion but it's closer than anything else here, and the sentiment of trying to hold onto childhood while growing up has potential, even if badly executed. And while I'm cynical looking at 'Dear Winter', I can at least see outside of the context of the album how it might seem charming with its clumsy amateurishness. But it's the one ballad on the album where I do see a bit of genuine potential: 'Turning Out Pt. ii'. Yes, it's a sequel to that awful goddamn break-up song on The Click where they said 'I grew up on Disney, but this don't feel like Disney', and there's still some of that same magnanimous air that I hate in this sort of breakup song... but there is some truth in falling for the idea of someone and convincing yourself it could work rather than face reality, and it's one of the few moments where the "self-awareness" seems genuine. More to the point, it's being sung by Ryan Met, the brother of the frontman who you probably don't recognize without the layers of autotune from 'Call My Dad' on The Click - and I'll say it, I'd easily prefer he take more of the frontman role than his brother Jack! There's a similar vocal timbre, but it's a little heavier and rough, and carries the emotion of the song way more convincingly! Hell, that raises the question why AJR doesn't bother to write more developed vocal arrangements with real harmonies instead of piling on the pitch-shifted overdubs and falsetto - I'm not saying it'd be all the way better, but if I'm looking at points where their hooks have the most potential - 'Don't Throw Out My Legos', 'Sober Up' off the last album - I think it could connect.

So look, I think a bunch of you were coming to this review expecting profanity and all manner of flowery language to rip this album a new one - a lengthy, sober analysis is probably not what you wanted, and I accept that. And let's not excuse that this is still an pretty atrocious album: the writing is cloying and juvenile with no real attempt at wit or charm, Jack Met remains one of the most punchable frontmen in music with a delivery that embodies everything I despise at this set of corporate-approved "indie pop", the thematic arc finds new ways to astound me in its ineptitude with every relisten, and if Jon Bellion isn't suing for royalties, he probably should be. I don't just dislike this album, I thoroughly hate the environment in which it has found fans and success, too shallow for truly cutting irony or deconstruction and too privileged and cowardly to bother taking risks, but too overblown and oversaturated to be easily ignored and insufferably convinced of its own earnest swell without any real soul or dignity to back it up. But there's enough of an inkling of better taste and poise, shreds of okay ideas, to put this above The Click, which was truly a horror to behold in finding new ways to appall an audience. And with no autotuned scatting this time around... yeah, strong 2/10, and if you think I'm recommending this album at this point... yeah, not a chance in hell. Still, an improvement from an offense to everything good in this world to fucking terrible - maybe in a decade AJR might make a passable album... presuming, of course, that Neotheater hasn't been burned to the ground, and good riddance for it.

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